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A Western Icon: The Stories and Illustrations of Will James


The Yellowstone Art Museum is featuring a new Will James exhibition, A Western Icon: The Stories and Illustrations of Will James. The new exhibition, greatly expanded from the core of Lone Cowboy, the exhibition the museum mounted more than a year ago, continues through January of 2004.

Comprised of paintings, drawings, manuscripts and many of Will James's' personal effects from the museum's Virginia Snook Collection, A Western Icon focuses on both the art and literature Will James produced in his too-brief but extraordinarily productive lifetime. (right: Will James Self Portrait, 1920, oil on canvas, 19 3/4 x 13 3/4 inches, Yellowstone Art Museum Permanent Collection, gift of Virginia Snook.  Image reproduced with permission from the Will James Art Company)

One of the most important American cowboy artists, James helped create and define the image of the mythic American cowboy in literature and in later Hollywood films.

Though born in Canada, James claimed eastern Montana as his home and spent many years in Billings as a guest of local art dealer, Earl Snook. Today, more than half a century after James' death, his books are still published, his paintings and drawings appreciated, and his life celebrated internationally through the Will James Society. The collection of his writings, drawings, paintings, and personal effects that is housed at the Yellowstone Art Museum (the largest public collection in existence) is an important legacy to Montana and the American West.  The Museum is dedicated to ensuring that this legacy remains strong through permanent exhibition of his art, and by becoming a center for Will James exploration. This exciting new exhibition, shown in an all-new Will James Gallery, is generously sponsored by the Will James Society.

The Yellowstone Art Museum, through the generosity of the Snook family, has in its collection many of James's original book manuscripts, handwritten outlines for books he planned, unpublished writings, numerous thumbnail drawings that later became finished book illustrations, a large number of his personal photographs, and voluminous correspondence from James to his editors, friends and cohorts in the cowboy and Hollywood worlds. These captivating materials tell a rich and wonderful story about a complex, fascinating American writer and illustrator.

One of the most important aspects of this new exhibition is the inclusion of a large number of James's paintings, including several works that have not been seen in Billings before.

With the opening of A Western Icon, the museum is especially happy to create a significantly larger Will James exhibition than it has been able to in the past. The Virginia Snook Will James Collection is so large, varied and multifaceted, that this new exhibition will be only the first in a series of several exhibitions created over the next several years that well explore, in depth, Will James's life and work.

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Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2003 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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